Along with my usual responsibilities, I am working on four short articles to be published in the Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture (Sheffield Phoenix, 2012*). What I appreciate about this opportunity is that it forces me to think not only intentionally but also concisely, because the dictionary is aimed at undergraduates and the length is confined to 600 words (or less). My approved four are: ‘Book of Life’, ‘Mystery’, ‘Signs of the Times’, and ‘Twinkling of an Eye’. (For those keeping score: yes, I do have apocalyptic interests).
There were two topics, however, that I wanted to do but were already assigned: ‘Camel Through a Needle’s Eye’ and ‘Behemoth’; however, I found out that such was the case after I had written the one on the camel. So I thought: why not post it and see what people think? What follows is a slightly lengthened and adapted version of the article. I would be curious to hear comments, criticisms, etc.
Camel Through a Needle’s Eye. This rather graphic phrase is found in Mark 10:25 (paralleled in Matthew 19:24; Luke 18:25). Some interpretative concerns are worth pursuing before attempting to ascertain the meaning of this phrase.
First, a variant reading in some Greek manuscripts reads, ‘a rope [or, cable].’ The variation is often explained in one of three ways: a visual mistake on the part of the scribe making a copy of the text, where the scribe accidentally read καμηλον (kamêlon [‘camel’]) as καμιλον (kamilon [‘rope/cable’]); an audible mistake, if the scribe was creating a copy via dictation, due to eta (η) and iota (ι) having similar sounds; or a scribe purposely replaced καμηλον with καμιλον in order to minimise the otherwise gross imagery. However, the reading of καμηλον not only outweighs the marginal reading of καμιλον but it also appears in earlier manuscripts. The earliest reference for καμιλον is around 444 CE and not appearing again until the 9th century CE, whereas the reference for καμηλον ranges consistently from 215 CE onward. Superficially, while the basic force of Jesus’ meaning would be retained whichever term was chosen; given the manuscript evidence (and other rules related to Textual Criticism), the reading of ‘camel’ is favoured in spite of (or, even because of) its graphic nature.
Second, considering the phrase as a whole, early theories suggested a small hole in the wall of a city serving as a gate through which travellers and their animals must pass. However, given its humiliating size, camels were either excluded or squeezed through only after off-loading their cargo—and even then with great effort. Some believe that this gate was called, ‘the Needle’s Eye’ and that Jesus’ comment in Mark 10.25 referenced not only this gate but also the great effort of bringing a camel through it. Thus, the rich man could enter heaven only if he was willing to be ‘off-loaded’ and humbled before God. Another theory, which is essentially a variation of the first one, suggested an extremely narrow mountain path known as ‘the Eye of the Needle’. The tight squeeze of this path required the riders of camels to dismount and walk slowly through mountains thus becoming vulnerable to robbers. While both of these options provide for interesting preaching material and captivating Sunday School lessons, there simply is no historical evidence to support them. Furthermore, both theories minimise (if not subvert) the significance of Jesus’ statement by making the impossible humanly possible.
Third, concerning additional uses, the phrase can be found in later extra-biblical texts and in a way that militates against references to a physical location. Berakhot 55b, exchanging camel for an elephant, stresses the impossibility of a given reality suggested by an evil spirit in a dream. Similarly, Bava Metzi’a 38b criticises the argumentative tendencies of the Babylonians who proclaim things that are logical impossible–hence: with their logic, ‘they push an elephant through the eye of a needle.’ More in line with Jesus’ statement, Persiqta 25.163b nuances the meaning of the imagery with God saying, ‘Open for me a gate no wider than a needle’s eye, and I will open for you a gate through which camps and fortifications can pass.’ Thus, the focus is on faith in what God can do (cf. Acts of Peter and Andrew). Similarly, yet from the other (logical) direction, the Qu’ran says, ‘the gates of heaven will not be opened for them nor shall they enter paradise until the camel passes through the eye of a needle’ (Surah 7.40), meaning: access can only be obtained by a divine act.
Finally, with regard to its meaning, two features should be noted. First, the insanely hyperbolic nature of the phrase needs to be retained in order for Jesus’ statement to have its full effect. Furthermore, the way in which the phrase is employed in extra-biblical texts supports a hyperbolic reading. Second, Jesus does not suggest that the rich are excluded from heaven because they are rich; instead, they are excluded because they believe their riches entitle them access to heaven. For Jesus, that belief is a logical (and theological) impossibility.
* UPDATE: when this post was originally written, the publisher and the publication date were different (i.e., Baylor, 2010)–or they wound up changing part way through the project.